While the warm weather brings out Phil Craft’s honeybees to collect nectar and spread pollen, the Jessamine County beekeeper is making his own rounds — statewide and even internationally — to help his counterparts keep their bees flying.
Craft had spent nearly 13 years as the Kentucky state apiarist before the new agriculture commissioner released him from the position in January. He finished a series of already scheduled beekeeping schools and is currently on a three-week aid mission to Bangladesh, but he has started his own website and intends to continue offering support to Kentucky’s beekeeping community.
“I’m still doing a lot — doing too much — because there’s a void and they haven’t hired anybody,” Craft said.
Most beekeeping operations in Kentucky are small, Craft said — his own dozen hives along High Bridge Road being fairly typical — and they don’t require much land, meaning it’s easy to look over a lot of the estimated 3,000 to 5,000 beekeepers.
“People often don’t realize how many beekeepers there are because (the bees) aren’t like cows when you drive down the road and see them in the field,” Craft said. “Mine happen to be by the road, but if they were behind my house, nobody would ever know they were here. There are more beekeepers around than people realize.”
The colonies of honeybees live in man-made hive boxes, where they build wax combs the same way they would naturally in a hollow tree.
“Beekeepers basically just provide them a different place to live — I call them managed colonies versus a feral or wild colony,” Craft said.
The bees go out to collect nectar — the chief material in honey — from plants. In making those rounds, the bees help the crops propagate by dispersing pollen.
“The pollen gets caught in the hair of the bee, and then when they go to another flower, it’s transferred sort of accidently,” Craft said.
It’s pollination that make the bees so valuable in agriculture, with many beekeepers selling the use of their hives to pollinate during blooming. Locally, honeybees are helpful in pollinating plants in the cucurbit family as well as some fruits.
“Those are the major things here in Kentucky,” Craft said. “When people come looking for something to pollinate, they’re typically looking at apples or they’re growing pumpkins or cantaloupes.”
The other benefit to beekeepers is especially sweet. Bees have been selected to be better honey producers, so they can produce much more honey than they will need. When the production gets very high in April, Craft will add “honey supers” — additional boxes where the bees will put surplus honey.
“It’s sort of their nature to put the honey up higher, so that way we can add boxes and they end up being all honey, and then we can remove those later in the summer and remove the honey from them,” he said.
Craft bottles his own honey and sells it exclusively at Fitch’s IGA in Wilmore, where the supply will be greater as spring goes on.
Both Craft’s grandfathers were beekeepers, and his curiosity and interest in the practice peaked about 20 years ago when he and his wife moved to the countryside near Wilmore and he got his first hives.
Craft wears a mask veil and carries a smoker to calm the bees when he checks on them, but he eschews gloves, saying they get in the way too much. He gets stung on a regular basis — “they still hurt” — but he doesn’t swell. He said everyone is allergic to bee stings and will get local swelling when they’re stung for the first time.
“If you’re going to keep bees, you’re going to get stung. However, you can cover yourself up enough to where you can almost totally protect yourself if you want,” he said. “... Most beekeepers that gain a lot of experience just learn to tolerate the stings, and our bodies become adapted to the venom.”
Craft became the state apiarist nearly 13 years ago, with his job mainly to assist beekeepers in the state, hosting question-and-answer sessions and doing hands-on work. He said the best maintenance beekeepers can do on their colonies is to make sure the hives are operating normally.
“They worry about diseases and things like that. I tell them the main thing is to just look and see if things are normal,” he said. “This time of year, bringing pollen in and things like that is normal. All of a sudden, if I saw a hive and they weren’t bringing in pollen, from the outside of the hive, I’d say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’”
In February and March, Craft hosted more than 1,200 beekeepers at five beekeeping schools across the state, including 425 participants at his last school March 10 in Frankfort. His work on the current United States Agency for International Development trip to Bangladesh involves helping beekeepers in the Asian country in much the same way he helps beekeepers in Kentucky. The project is coordinated by nonprofit organization Winrock International.
To learn more about Craft or beekeeping, visit philcrafthivecraft.com.